BEIJING - China has lowered dairy plants' required protein levels for raw milk as a way of discouraging farmers from adding the industrial chemical melamine to bolster protein-test readings, health ministry officials said.
Melamine, typically used in the manufacture of plastics, fertilizer and concrete, was found in the country's milk products two years ago, resulting in the deaths of at least 6 children and causing hundreds of thousands of children to suffer from kidney disorders.
Despite investigations and prohibitions against melamine use in dairy products, melamine-laced milk products are still being found, underscoring the persistence of food safety problems in China.
As recently as last week, authorities seized 64 metric tons of milk powder and products containing the chemical in the northwest Gansu and Qinghai provinces, and suspected tainted powder also turned up in the country's northeast, Xinhua news agency reported.
Melamine's high nitrogen content makes protein levels appear higher when added to milk or animal feed.
The new minimum protein level for raw milk was lowered to 2.8 percent from the previous standard of 2.95 percent, health ministry officials said.
The new standard is more realistic, in part because many dairy cows are fed with low-quality feed that leads to low protein levels, Wu Heping, secretary general of Heilongjiang Dairy Association, said at a health ministry news conference on Tuesday.
"The 2.8 percent level is based on a lot of data collected after an investigation by the agriculture ministry and is most suitable for China's current economic development," said Wang Zhutian, a health expert at the conference.
China has set a minimum level of the chemical in baby milk powder at 1 mg/kg and 2.5 mg/kg for other food products. Officials at the conference said that represents amounts that could be introduced by pesticide residue and packing materials.